Family, friends recall slain settler


LAWRENCE, New York, June 6 (JTA) — For some, the notion of an Israeli settler in the West Bank or Gaza Strip conjures up the image of a yarmulke-wearing, gun-toting zealot hunkered down in a far-flung, Arab- surrounded enclave.

So Jerome and Sharyn Blaustein say they want to set the record straight about their sister-in-law, Sara Blaustein.

Sara, 53, was shot and killed May 29 by Palestinian gunmen as her husband, Norman, drove them from their home in the settlement of Efrat to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a mere 15 minutes away.

Norman — Jerome’s twin brother — was injured in the drive-by shooting. More seriously wounded was Sara’s son from her first marriage, Samuel Berg, who was shot once in the arm and twice in the back. He has been released from a hospital, but is still on IV.

And a woman the family was giving a ride to, Esther Alvan, 20, was hit in the head and died instantly in the back seat.

Killings like these in the territories seemingly do not evoke the same emotion or outrage among some American Jews as do the victims of terror in Israel proper, say the Blausteins and others.

Just as someone attacked while strolling through a crime-infested neighborhood in the middle of the night might garner less sympathy, say the Blausteins, some American Jews respond to news of terror attacks in the territories by partly blaming the victims, saying the settlers shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

But Sara and Norman were no “radicals,” the Blausteins say, and Efrat is no Hebron, perhaps the most hotly contested area in the West Bank.

The two had given up their comfortable existence in Lawrence, an affluent, heavily Jewish suburb in Long Island, N.Y. More difficult for them was parting with four granddaughters — the offspring of Sara’s daughter from her first marriage — to fulfill a long-held dream to make aliyah and live in the Holy Land.

Jews should not have less condemnation for a Palestinian attack that takes place in the territories, says Jerome Blaustein, who maintains that an attack on settlers is an attack on Jews everywhere,

“If you consider Jews all one family, then you have one reaction to these murders,” says Blaustein, whose home in Lawrence is a few minutes from where his brother used to live.

“But if you separate yourself from other Jews, and say, ‘Those are Orthodox, those are haredi and those are settlers,’ then there’s a different reaction and you can justify these murders.”

“People who react this way don’t know their own history: The Nazis murdered Jews even if they were one-quarter Jewish; it didn’t matter whether they were religious or not.”

Sara and Norman, who is also 53, had only made aliyah last August.

They were retired, with three children each from previous marriages, and a 13-year-old daughter, Atara, from their own.

From Lawrence, the modern Orthodox couple settled into a nearly as comfortable existence in Efrat, a bedroom community that has evolved into one of the most desirable suburbs of Jerusalem — for those willing to live over the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border with the West Bank.

The settlement is like any other community, says Jerome: “If you were to put on a blindfold and interview someone from Efrat and someone from Lawrence, you’d have difficulty discerning who was from where.”

However, on the Efrat Web site — in addition to updates of which West Bank roads are open — there is a feature written by Efrat resident David Willner, “Why I’m Ready to Go to War.”

Sara and Norman chose Efrat because it has long been home to her brother, David Unterberg, and also because it is populated predominantly by English-speakers, especially Americans.

Some Israelis, on the other hand, would never live in “the territories” out of principle.

But Norman and Sara felt that as Jews, they had the right to live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael — including Judea and Samaria.

The retired couple was aware that the settlement was on “disputed” territory — they disagree with the Palestinian view of it being “Israel-occupied” — but didn’t consider it dangerous when they arrived, say the Blausteins.

If they had, says Sharyn Blaustein, they would probably have reconsidered, because Atara, now 14, was with them.

Norman and Sara were renowned for their hospitality, say family and friends.

Jerome Blaustein says their generosity extended to their volunteer activities — though some of those activities would be considered provocative by some Jews.

For years, the Blausteins worked for American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, which wants to maintain a yeshiva in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem.

They were also heavily involved with the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, which purchases property from Arabs in the Old City.

Sara and Norman were honored last year for their longtime service to the project.

Their volunteerism continued in the Holy Land.

Each Tuesday, Sara and a fellow Efrat resident took their turns at a daily vigil at Rachel’s Tomb in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem — site of numerous gun battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen since the violence began last fall.

The women brought candy to the Israeli soldiers guarding the tomb, “to let them know they were appreciated,” says Sharyn.

Of great pride to the Blausteins was a new, handwritten Torah they had pledged to their Efrat congregation, a time-consuming, costly endeavor — upward of $20,000, says Jerome.

The Torah’s dedication was to be a seminal event in their lives, and Norman had asked Jerome and his family fly out to be a part of it.

“Now, unfortunately, the Torah will be in Sara’s honor,” says Jerome.

Life in Israel fueled Sara’s appetite for learning, primarily Torah and biblical studies.

“She was not just a congregant, but a student,” says her rabbi from Lawrence, Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom.

“She was a person with a remarkably inquisitive mind and with very strong views on a whole host of issues, particularly relating to Israel.

“It wasn’t a casual rabbi-congregant connection, which makes it all the more devastating a loss for the congregation, and for me.”

Sara’s last day began as any other during her short life in Efrat, according to the Blausteins.

She began by praying with fellow congregants, then delivered a progress report on the Torah. She then headed out to serve her shift at Rachel’s Tomb.

She returned to Efrat to accompany Norman to the Western Wall.

Norman was to fly to New York that night, as he does every few weeks to check in on the computer business he still owns; he had adopted a ritual of praying at Judaism’s holiest site prior to each trip away from Israel — “a keepsake to keep in the back of his mind,” says his brother.

The couple was on the road when, at roughly 3 p.m., a car reportedly carrying Palestinians passed the Blausteins on their left.

The attackers strafed the side of the vehicle with the fatal gunfire.

Sara was buried May 30 in Israel; a memorial service in Lawrence is tentatively scheduled for June 27.

During the May 29 attack, one bullet grazed Norman’s left cheek, fracturing his cheekbone, breaking his nose and eye socket, and shattering his glasses.

He lost his hearing and vision — a temporary condition, according to his doctors. Sight has since returned to one eye.

His emotional recovery is also coming along.

“He’s finally able to recount the story without breaking down,” says Jerome.

Jerome says Norman will have no regrets about having moved with Sara to “disputed” territory.

“He says she died with a smile on her face, like it was frozen in time.”

Jerome also says it is his hunch that, if anything, his brother “may now be on more of a mission, more determined than ever to maintain their dream of living in the Holy Land.”

Recommended from JTA